Dissed Online? How to Fix Your Brand's Rep

Today's consumers don't hesitate to post their comments, good and bad, on the Internet. Here are some tips for damage control

My company builds and sells custom computers. Recently we've received some negative comments on consumer sites. How can we handle this hit to our reputation?

—D.R., El Monte, Calif.

Web sites where individuals trade kudos—and groans—about their consumer experiences are becoming increasingly popular. Some savvy shoppers wouldn't think of making a purchase without first checking in at Yelp or Epinions. In this empowered consumer climate, it is more important than ever that entrepreneurs build and maintain an excellent reputation. The rub, of course, is today's companies have less control than ever over their branding.

If one angry customer or disgruntled employee unleashes virulent, anonymous criticism about your company online—no matter how unjustified—it can be nearly impossible to erase, says Chris Rosica, president and chief executive officer of Rosica Strategic Public Relations in Paramus, N.J. "The Internet is like the wild Wild West and its contributors, some with questionable motives, can post what they want about a company, product, or service, allowing damaging postings to live on in search engines for long periods of time," Rosica says.

Employ a two-pronged approach to managing your company's reputation (BusinessWeek.com, 4/30/08). First, implement a program to deal with customer complaints and change your products and services based on customer feedback. Next, launch a strong offense by making sure your company has more positive messages on the Internet than negative ones.

Follow Up With Your Customers

"If your product is getting consistently low ratings, there is a reason," says Janet Boulter, a business adviser at Denver's Center Consulting Group. "Choosing to ignore the issues and concerns raised by your customers will cost you sales. Most customers will vent about a problem to the world but they rarely contact the company to address their issues or concerns, so it is imperative that companies reach out to their customers."

Follow up with your clients by e-mailing them a brief questionnaire a week or two after their purchase. Ask how their order was handled, how satisfied they are with the product, and whether they would purchase from you again. Remember that the two most common customer complaints are a discrepancy between customer expectations and product usability, and poor product quality.

Use the feedback you get to tweak your products and business processes to meet your customers' needs, Boulter suggests: "Be a customer-friendly company and post your customer service contact information on your Web site. Encourage customers to call or e-mail you with their feedback about your product. Remember that you can't solve a problem until you acknowledge it exists." Focusing on creating relationships with your customers will also help prevent the kind of negative feedback your customers are putting online, she adds.

Concentrate on Creating Positive Content

Once the negative reviews of your company have been posted to a consumer site or blog, you have a choice: Rebut them publicly and/or try to contact the reviewers privately to resolve the problem, or ignore the dings and work harder in the future on customer satisfaction.

It's a tough choice to make, says Rob Russo, president of Defend My Name, a Web service provider based in Falmouth, Me. "You could retort under the theory that it's better to address the comment than leave it hanging. However, every time you make a post on that original comment, you're driving its ranking up on the search engines," he says.

You Can Overcome Unfair Comments

It might be better to concentrate on generating your own positive content so you can suppress the negative comments in the search engine results rankings, Russo says. His company creates a series of Web portals and positive content for its clients, and then uses search engine optimization techniques to drive those links up the search engine rankings so that positive sites dominate the first page of ratings results when potential customers search for your company.

"Research shows that 90% of all people who search on any search engine never go beyond page one of the results," Russo says. "This way, the company controls its own branding and messages."

You can overcome nasty or unfair comments about your company and not let them ruin your reputation or affect your bottom line. "No matter what size your company is or what you sell, it all starts with an authentic, quality product or service and the mission to make the customer happy above all else. Customer satisfaction is the key ingredient to weathering any crisis, any negative press, or spurious blog postings," Rosica says.

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